Leading by example, doctor in training Ali Mohammadi is bridging the gap between the education system and the young refugees and asylum seekers who lack the support to access it.
Like many refugees who arrive in the UK, Ali Mohammadi felt like he was part of a system he did not understand. The widely documented ‘hostile environment’ in which refugees and asylum seekers live extends further than the asylum system itself: education, housing, social care, the legal system and public services are all inaccessible.
“I didn’t realise my experience and what I went through was so bad or valuable at the same time until I met other students,” says Ali, who came to the UK from Iran when he was seventeen. “As a refugee, I struggled to get familiarised with the education system in the UK but it kept me away, held me off for a few years from applying to university, because I didn’t know how to apply, where to apply or what qualifications I needed. I wanted to get into one of the most competitive courses in the UK, which is medicine. And I struggled a lot and even got lots of incorrect advice. So many times, I wasn’t sure what to do and just random people, by chance, came into my life and helped me.”
Among those who assisted Ali was the Hummingbird Project in Brighton, where Ali now lives. The Founder, Elaine Ortiz, and Young Leaders Facilitator, Toby Moore, encouraged Ali to become a young leader at Hummingbird, and he has been an active member of the organisation for three years.
“I learned public speaking and how to have confidence and I’ve done different activities,” says Ali. “Through Hummingbird, I was introduced to Blagrave and the Challenge and Change Fund. I realised that what I went through can be used to prevent other people from going through the same nightmare I had. It’s good to share my experience and my skills with others, so that they can learn from it. Rather than just holding back, keeping my head down and minding my own business. I thought, ‘let me play my part.”
“No one without any help could achieve big things.”
Ali made a successful application to Challenge and Change to build a project that helps young people with experiences of disadvantage, particularly those with refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds, to progress in their education, apply to and graduate from university and pursue fulfilling careers.
“The Challenge and Change application process was quite straightforward and easy to do,” says Ali. “When I got the funding, I could establish the project, make the idea solid, find people and see what they want, what their goals are, and support them in different ways, like understanding what courses they want to study and how they can make themselves eligible for the interview, and so on. That’s how it all started and I’ve worked with five students, in particular. One of them was accepted on a physiotherapy course at Brighton University, some of them have finished their GCSEs and two of them also want to study medicine. The other priority was finding a safe place to meet because some of the students are very young and I needed a good place in terms of safeguarding and, again, I got help from the Hummingbird Project.”
One evening a week, Ali works at the Hummingbird Project office, where he meets and offers advice and guidance to students, including prospective students who want to better understand the education system and routes to their desired careers. With funding from Challenge and Change, he has also been able to supply young people with books and pay for their travel to college open days, food and fun experiences.
“It’s about trying to reach people from minority backgrounds who are less hopeful or discouraged and to tell them that they can get high skilled jobs or do a difficult course as it’s just a matter of having enough support. It’s not about your intelligence level. It’s not about your studies. It’s about having enough support. No one without any help could achieve big things.
I had no one to help me so I am there to help those people. I try to meet them and also have a nice time with them. That means they feel comfortable and enthusiastic about coming to meet me. I also help with UCAS applications, interviews and personal statements, and I integrated with the Hummingbird events for students, where they bring volunteers to help with maths and English, so I can give advice.
The final goal is getting them into universities rather than just taking random jobs at a very young age. When you move from one country to another, you’re away from the education of your schools and colleges. Some refugees, if not all, start to find unsecure jobs from early on even though they might be so talented and it’s good to encourage them, support them to go to college, and then from college to university.”
“Having a good education also means having good support, knowing what to do, studying what you like.”
Ali’s own pursuit of a BMBS Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery Degree inspired a wave of media attention, including by ITV. The local community and Brighton and Sussex Medical School celebrated when Ali was admitted into the School, just five years after he arrived in the UK. He was considered a top candidate; so much so that teachers combined forces to create a new bursary scheme specifically to support Ali, who was unable to access a student loan because he is a refugee.
“Even though people say studying medicine is hard, I don’t find that it is as I’m very much fascinated by it so I don’t find it hard because I love it.” Ali has been passionate about studying medicine since early childhood. His mother, a radiologist, often took Ali to work with her at a hospital.
“I think education is one of the main aspects of every one’s life. You need to have a good education so that you can progress in life. Having a good education also means having good support, knowing what to do, studying what you like.”
Funding from Challenge and Change has supported Ali’s own academic pursuits, enabling him to pay himself a wage for his work to support other students, thereby making it possible for him to accept invitations to speak at two prestigious national conferences to which he was invited.
“I went to Manchester and Birmingham to speak about cardiac surgery and I had to book a hotel and train myself,” explains Ali. “I couldn’t do that if I didn’t have the funding, so I would have had to reject the invitation to speak if I didn’t have the support. I don’t have any family support or anything else and this support is the biggest thing.
This year, especially with the cost of living, I’ve been struggling with transport and going to my placements outside of my city and living. So how Blagrave has helped me is personal, educational and societal. They have helped me with my personal growth outside medicine, helped with my education so I can stay on top of my studies and not worry about money all the time, and helped me to accept the big opportunity of helping society and others up.”
“I’m looking out for anyone who’s looking for me”
Though much of his energy is given to studying, supporting students and volunteering as a First Aider at Brighton and Hove Albion, Ali is also preoccupied with thoughts about how his work can support the larger effort to positively shift the narrative about refugees and asylum seekers. He believes that mainstream public and political discourse often loses sight of the primary reason for which people often make treacherous journeys to the UK.
“People come from other countries for a safe space here. Not to steal, not to take anything away,” he explains. “I’m building the idea that refugees are more beneficial to this country than harmful. They have so many bright minds, people coming here who just want to live and succeed and have careers and achieve their goals. With the right amount of support, they can show us their full potential and they can make a lot of people’s lives better. And I just see myself as an example. I want to become a doctor who works in the NHS and God knows how many lives I can save in the next thirty years. I want to be known as someone who worked hard to make a change and can inspire other people.”
With each person that Ali meets in the Hummingbird Project office in busy central Brighton, he hopes to make a significant inroad to challenging and changing the perception of refugees for good. The young people who will continue to arrive on our shores are not simply victims of the circumstances into which they are forced but, with support from people like Ali, are people who can lead lives they have shaped themselves and which they value.
“I’m looking out for anyone who’s looking for me,” says Ali. “Sometimes it’s difficult because I have exams and, at the end of the day, I’m a student on a difficult course but I get so much support from Hummingbird and Blagrave and, every time I do this work, I’m so happy about it and I do it with my whole heart.”
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The Challenge and Change Fund is designed by young changemakers for young changemakers. It funds young people directly, supporting them to create the change they want to see. It prioritises young people who are emergent and have lived experience of the injustices they are trying to change, supporting youth led collectives, social enterprises and CICs across England. You can read more about Challenge and Change here.